The Wild Reed
I made some intentions for Lent that I would categorize as loose. Loose plans sounded like a good idea for this year. I came into Lent with curiosity and flexibility. I wanted to begin the season knowing nothing so there would be space to learn. I desired to experience the unfolding of Lent rather than do Lent as I have known it before. From Our Lady of the Sofa, I set out to journey as a pilgrim who virtually travels a sacred territory for the first time. I craved a fresh experience for a season that can feel routine year after year.
It felt like a sandstorm rolled in last week, making the visibility on this Lenten road poor. I paused and laughed as the God of Surprise led me down a few paths I didn't anticipate. Laugh? Yes. I need humor, even during the solemn season of Lent. Plus, I've seen a picture of Jesus laughing. We might enter the world crying, but weren't we born to experience and hold on to laughter too? During this mid-Lent pause, I wondered if I was supposed to continue what I had initially planned? Or was I being encouraged to switch gears? Specifically, do I continue to write spiritual and Lenten reflections? Why would I want to? Who am I to think she can write them? Who will read and connect with them? But then I often remember an experience that encourages me to carry on. I find humor in it. I hope you will too.
It's the combination of two writing conferences I have experienced. I attend a writing conference for spiritual writers once a year. It is always an uplifting event packed with keynote speakers who encourage writers to stay the course of writing about faith. I sit among Christians who have the common interest to strengthen and share their voices in building the Kingdom of God. From pulpits to manuals, manuscripts to blogs, and personal testimonies, the unity of hunger to spread the good news is palpable. I spend time among Protestant pastors, Methodist clergy, Evangelicals, and Quakers. I meet members of the Reformed Church of Christ who appear to need no reforming at all and listen to the yearnings and messages of female Episcopalian priests that make the ground shake beneath my seat. The desire in the laywomen and men of various Christian denominations to write about Divine goodness and abundance inspires me. The Spirit is alive and thriving.
After attending this conference one year, I decided to search and see if a Catholic writing conference exists. I found one close to my home starting the next day. The timing! I walked in, arriving with the sole desire to learn something to improve my skills. I found the check-in booth and settled myself in front of the registration sign.
Hello. I found information online about the conference and saw you were taking walk-ins, I said to the young attendant.
Yes, of course. Are you a writer? she asked.
Yes, I answered as she handed me a paper to fill out with the payment form. Is there anything else needed?
And you are a practicing Catholic, she said. Or asked.
Hmm, I thought to myself. Is this a statement or a question? I sensed it was the latter as a solemn silence hung in the air. That phrase dangles in the dome of the Catholic world often when filling out certain church forms. Specifically forms regarding godparents, confirmation sponsors, marriage paperwork, and now a writing conference registration. This question never fails to produce a veil of judgment or the level of Catholic status of a person. Is he or she a practicing Catholic? Or the sub-labels that sometimes transpire from the question. A good Catholic. Bad Catholic. Lapsed Catholic. Coming home Catholic. New Catholic. Rigid Catholic. Not enough Catholic. Why the labels?
What does a practicing catholic exactly mean, and who has the final say to answer this inquiry? Aren't there different angles to reflect upon when answering this question? Or does the answer solely lie in adhering to a list of rules embedded in a catechesis book or neatly filling out a few lines on a form?
The question caught me off guard. I stood at the counter, contemplating if I qualified as a practicing Catholic. I noticed a large sign for an Adoration chapel down the hall in front of me. Beyond that was a sign for confession times. To the left of those was a notice for Mass opportunities during the conference. Across from me was an entire wing set up with vendors of all things Catholic to purchase. Seeing the visible and mulling over the invisible, I stared at the form. I didn't attend Catholic grade or high school. But I could feel the open cradle of the faith into which I was born. The hazy recollection of my CCD days rocked me awake with some ideas, for the everyday person like me, of what being a practicing Catholic might mean. Do I know what the Catholic Catechesis book is? Know what it says about being a practicing Catholic? Do I attend Mass? Do I visit Adoration, go to confession regularly, study the Bible, follow the Ten Commandments, know the Beatitudes by heart, and perhaps commit to intense prayer? Do I fast? Do I tithe? Do I know what a precept is and how many there are?
In other words, am I checking off boxes with a big thick X mark and staying neatly and squarely within the walls of the church? Or am I doing my best to be the church, continuing to learn, or perhaps unlearn and relearn what being the church truly means?
While deciding if I am a practicing Catholic, I thought about what one of my child's freshman high school math teachers, a Benedictine brother, once presented to the parents during a back-to-school night. He told us that he never uses the word homework. Instead, he uses the word practice. How brilliant, I thought. That has a sweet ring to it like an invitation. Forgiveness. Hope. Openness. Acceptance. Room for growth rather than staying stagnant. Opportunity to succeed rather than fail.
This memory warmed me as I looked once again at the conference registration form. I took a side-step to self-reflect. Thinking of my real-life experiences with real-life people, I asked myself a few questions. Am I crossing off the boxes for appearance's sake and keeping my world small and within the church's confines? Or am I practicing my faith, even if imperfectly, to be united with, not above others? Do I apply the lessons for the greater good, elevating others, especially the lowly, to help build the Kingdom of God? Am I a practicing Catholic for my church or the Church? After some honest thought about what kind of Catholic I am, I had my answer. But maybe not in a checklist way enclosed in a box.
Facing the woman, I felt tiny. With the thin counter between us, I wondered if I was worthy enough to be there. But worthy enough for whom? The people who organized the conference? Or for someone more extraordinary than anyone in the conference center? I wasn't looking for a VIP pass. I was looking for access to the VIP, hoping that Divine inspiration and creativity would flow through me.
Oh yes. I am a practicing Catholic, I told her as I handed her the form with enthusiasm. An honest and flawed human practicing to be Catholic. A woman who often thinks that a column about the truths of being a practicing Catholic would be interesting. I would title it The Wild Reed. It would be a space for people to feel at home on their journey rather than lost in the desert or muddy waters. I envision it as an opportunity to rise in love rather than wilt with discouragement. We could be a field of wild reeds together, lifting one another from storms and droughts. It could be reverent fun. No labels allowed. Just come as you are.
I think I hear someone laughing.